Jersey City’s Mural Law Causing Problems for Artists & Business Owners; City Considering a Change as a Result


The finished SAGE collective whale mural on the wall of the Palace Drugs building (Photo by Dylan Evans)

Murals are popping up all over Jersey City, and city officials have wholeheartedly supported the expansion of street art as a way to beautify unadorned walls and hopefully create a destination for murals, along the lines of what Philadelphia has done with its well-regarded Mural Arts Program. But the law governing the murals has created some confusion between city agencies about the approval process, leading to what critics say is overzealous enforcement. Now, in an effort to clear things up and make the city a more fertile place for mural-making, the City Council is currently considering a change to the law.

‘Yet Another Obstacle to do Something Good for Jersey City’

The internal confusion between city agencies came to the forefront once again in November, as Dylan Evans of the Jersey City Mural Arts Program worked with artists to install a new mural along the wall of the Palace Drugs building, near the corner of Newark Avenue and Bay Street Downtown.

Although the Division of Cultural Affairs had already approved the mural design, a vibrant and colorful 90-foot whale created by a collaboration of New Jersey based artists known as SAGE collective, the city’s Planning division was apparently not in the loop. A planning official approached Evans, inquiring whether he and property owner Jerry Blankman had obtained the proper approval from the division.

“I have not received any kind of funding from the city to pay for supplies, or pay artists. I procure the walls and commission artists through my own networking and reaching out,” Evans says. “I was upset that I now had to face yet another obstacle to do something good for Jersey City.”

Evans, who has spearheaded the installation of five mural projects in Jersey City over the last 22 months, had crafted a solid working relationship with Blankman. But when a planning official contacted the business owner, claiming he needed to have applied for a certificate and also submitted a proposal to be pre-approved by the Planning Board, Evans got what he describes as a “very concerned and unpleasant call” from Blankman, who feared that he would be fined or sued by the city for not following proper protocol.

“[The official’s] reasoning for the Planning Board’s certification process was so that businesses were not painting signage disguised as murals,” Evans says. “[But] it was the first time I had ever heard of [this] department getting involved in permitting murals to be created.”

In a November 17 email obtained by JCI, Cultural Affairs director Maryanne Kelleher asked Mayor Healy’s chief of staff Rosemary McFadden why this kind of thing was occurring.

“Why is the planning office stalking artists and art-friendly business owners about a certificate for a mural?” she wrote. “This resembles the same problem we are encountering with artists/businesses complaining about art events being shut down and/or policed by inspectors.”

Indeed, the parallels between the mural enforcement and the continued problems with the city’s entertainment ordinance are striking, with both cases involving a healthy dose of confusion among participants and business owners, overlapping and often contradictory goals from different city divisions, and enforcement coming out of the city’s Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce (HEDC).

The situation is all too familiar to both the Cultural Affairs division and the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA), which both work to cultivate mural arts and other cultural programs in the city, not to mention the countless artists, organizers and business owners who have unknowingly run afoul of the law.

And much like with the entertainment ordinance, the Healy administration is now pushing to streamline the process, realizing the commercial appeal of cultivating a thriving arts community.

An Under-the-Radar Law Change

The current dustup has its roots in a January 2010 change to the city’s Land Development Ordinance that was unanimously passed by the City Council. The change set design and approval guidelines for art murals throughout the city; among other restrictions, it specifically prohibited murals from displaying advertising content, illegal activity or “electric, electronic, or lighted elements.”

The change also laid out the procedures for having murals approved, with sketches needing the thumbs-up from both Planning and Zoning (and the Historic Preservation Commission, if the work in question fell within a historic area) prior to installation.

However, Cultural Affairs — which was (and still is) providing support to mural programs like Evans’ — was caught off-guard by the changes, and was apparently not aware they had even been made until eight months later.

“We were made aware of the amendments in September 2010, when an approved mural project was taking place,” Kelleher says. “We received complaints from local artists that the planning office was approaching muralists and building owners to inform them that licensing was required from Planning and Zoning for these projects.”

Cultural Affairs “immediately” reached out to Planning, Zoning, the mayor’s office and the JCRA to revisit the amendments, according to Kelleher, and an accord was eventually reached.

“The planning office took great pains to explain their intent, that it was to protect the arts and differentiate a mural from a sign,” she says. “That intent was not clearly stated in the ordinance, so we began working to fix that.” 

Her point is echoed by JCRA executive director Robert Antonicello, who says Planning certainly meant no harm by the regulations.

“Planning’s true intentions weren’t to restrict, but indirectly they were affecting the arts community by trying to establish ground rules that don’t translate into arts and culture,” he says. “It could be seen as a generational issue — the old ways clashing with new, trying to control rather than safely observe. But we have reached a mutual understanding with Planning and are moving forward.”

The end result of this “mutual understanding” is a revision to last year’s revision, which is before the City Council as a first-read ordinance this week. The new, streamlined regulations “will better facilitate the installation of mural art while continuing to distinguish such art from signage,” the ordinance fact sheet reads.

In addition to the law change, Planning Director Bob Cotter has expressed his commitment that art-related legislation will not be proposed by his office in the future without “the input and engagement” of artists and arts professionals, according to Kelleher.

Her Cultural Affairs colleague Greg Brickey says the city will continue to provide support for murals and the artists and community members who want to create them.

“This is a big city with plenty of room for artists,” Brickey says. “I support the multiple mural programs happening throughout Jersey City, and there will be more murals to come in the spring that are more targeted and community based.”

Indeed, the JCRA and Cultural Affairs continue to move forward with plans for new murals for the Baldwin Avenue PATH bridge and the MLK Hub, and the expansion of the murals on Route 139.

“All the artists who participated with the 139 murals got to bring a decaying wall to life and interact with the neighborhood,” Antonicello says. “Kids, families, long time residents or just those passing by were all excited in what was happening.”

Antonicello says that it is important for Jersey City not to inhibit the growing artist community and exclude them, but rather to reach out and include them in the city’s growth.

“The art is for the people. From river to river, Bayonne to Union City, JCRA and Cultural Affairs are trying to reach out to artists to help grow with the changing region,” he says. “We will continue to help raise our own money, supply the talent and do it unregulated. Because we [and the artists] are acting purely for the art, the community [and] the city — without politics to corrupt it.”

As for business owner Jerry Blankman, he eventually received his certificate and plans to continue to keep working with Evans to fill all the available wall space of his building.

“Cultural Affairs was extremely supportive and spent a lot of time helping to resolve this issue,” he says. “They recognized my reaching out to the art community and I will continue to support it.”

Ben Hosley

is a freelance writer and comedian. He attended the New School University where he received a BA in Creative Writing. Born and raised in New Jersey, he lives in Jersey City and his cat's name is Pig.